The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

State and Nation

March 1, 2014

Chapo's Rise: From poor, abused to cartel kingpin

— It was nighttime in May of 1990, in the heyday of the cocaine boom across America. Twenty Mexican federal police officers and a handful of U.S. Customs agents, acting on a tip, descended on a stucco home on the edge of Agua Prieta, Mexico — a stone's throw from Arizona. "Policia," they yelled, guns drawn, before busting down the front door.

The house was empty but looked lived in, with dishes in the kitchen and toys in the backyard. The officers moved quickly to a spacious game room, complete with a bar and a pool table, set atop a 10-by-10 foot concrete panel on the floor.

An informant had told them that what they were looking for was under the pool table. They moved it aside and went to work with a jackhammer. Then, a stroke of luck: One of them turned the knob of a faucet and suddenly the floor panel rose into the air — like a hydraulic lift in an auto shop, or something straight out of a Bond movie.

A metal staircase led down to a stunning discovery: Beneath the house, connecting to a warehouse in the U.S. 300 feet away, was an underground tunnel outfitted with lighting, air vents and tracks on the floor to transport carts full of drugs.

It was, at the time, unheard of, a new level of sophistication in the cross-border war on the Colombian and Mexican cartels that were sending tons of cocaine and marijuana north every year. "A masterpiece," retired Customs agent Terry Kirkpatrick, who was there that day, recalled of the tunnel that came to be known as "Cocaine Alley."

But, he added: "None of us ... looked at it with the vision that this would be the future of drug smuggling."

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